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August 2, 2004 - The New York Times (NY)


Taking Back The Prisons

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The nation can no longer tolerate prisons operated as the fiefdoms of wardens who do what they wish with little oversight from state authorities.

The states will need more direct control - and clear reform plans - if they intend to address recidivism, the AIDS and hepatitis epidemics, and court orders mandating humane treatment for inmates, especially the mentally ill.

Courts in several states have tired of waiting for compliance and appointed special masters who push prisons toward reform.

California, which has a special master at its Pelican Bay prison, could see its whole system come under court control unless Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes swifter progress toward reforms ordered by the courts starting nearly a decade ago.

The takeover threat came last month from Judge Thelton Henderson, who made his reputation on prison issues by putting a stop to the abuse of prisoners that prevailed in the 1990's at Pelican Bay in Northern California.

Judge Henderson installed the special master there, and mentally ill patients who once were abused and placed in solitary confinement are now referred to a mental health unit. Shootings and acts of official violence are handled promptly by an investigatory panel. Brutality by guards has declined.

The court believes that reform at the prison level has gone as far as it can go and that the state's notoriously weak prison authority must be remade.

A recent report by a panel led by George Deukmejian, former governor of California, described that authority as sprawling, out of touch and powerless. It argued for replacing it with a simpler agency responsible to a secretary of corrections and overseen by a civilian review board.

The judge also said, in essence, that the prison guards' union had seized control of the disciplinary process and had too much influence in corrections department operations.

The union, however, did not seize power at gunpoint. It bought it the old-fashioned way - with hefty contributions to politicians.

It then expanded into the administrative vacuum left by a prison authority tangled up in its own bureaucracy.

In addition to keeping the union in check, the governor and Legislature should restructure the state prison authority, perhaps along the lines suggested by the Deukmejian panel, so that the state can reform the prisons statewide, not one at a time.

That's what Judge Henderson was saying by threatening to take over. It is advice that other states should follow.

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